Thursday, 16 September 2021

House Of Frankenstein









The Man
With Niemann


House Of Frankenstein
USA 1944 Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Universal Blu Ray Zone B


Okay, so after hitting on the idea of having two monsters for the price of one in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (reviewed here), what could be a more natural progression than to fashion a movie which would star all four of Universal’s main, flagship monsters? Alas, the budget proved too much for their original line up so, despite originally planning another continuity busting component of this film when it was originally to be titled, The Devil’s Brew, the studio ditched the idea of having Kharis The Mummy getting in on the fun here too.

But we do have, in House Of Frankenstein, the first film to feature Dracula (as played by John Carradine), the Wolfman (as played once again by Lon Chaney Jr) and the Frankenstein monster (played once again by Glenn Strange). Bela Lugosi was originally scheduled to return as Dracula but some scheduling difficulties arose when Boris Karloff, who is also in this film, had to be released from a stage contract... so the studio went with Carradine in Bela's role due to the delay.

Yes, that’s right, Boris Karloff returns to this film as Dr. Niemann, a murderous mad scientist who along with a fellow cell mate, a hunchback lab assistant played by J. Carrol Naish, escape from their prison in order to find the secrets of the Frankenstein monster and seek revenge on the village people who put Niemann in jail (not the ones who sing YMCA). So, yeah, it’s kind of strange to have Karloff in a Frankenstein movie in which he’s not actually playing the monster but, honestly, he’s very good in this. His wonderful line delivery and the way he interacts with the other characters really lifts the film.

There are also a few other names from previous Universal horror movies who people will recognise, all pretty much playing different characters to their previous one... such as Anne Gwynne, Lionel Atwill and George Zucco.

Now, the thing about this movie is that it’s not really a proper monster mash at all. In terms of the story connecting up the three monsters... well, it really doesn’t. Niemann and his assistant are the only connecting tissue in a story that is definitely a game of two halves. The film plays for 1 hour and 10 mins but Dracula is only in the first half an hour and the other two monsters don’t come into the story until after he has made his last bow. Again.

So Karloff and Nash take over a travelling side show trailer, Professor Lampini’s Chamber Of Horrors on the way to the village of Frankenstein. The trailer comes complete with a specialist exhibit in the form of the actual skeleton of Dracula, with a stake pinning it in its coffin. When Karloff pulls out the stake in anger in one scene, not even he would have believed it but we are treated to the skeleton transforming into John Carradine, who kills one of Lampini’s foes (played by Sig Ruman from A Night At The Opera) in return for Niemman’s help... a favour which doesn’t get returned because, while he is being pursued for his crime, Dracula gets caught in the daylight and returns back to skeletal form (until the next film... yeah, we’ll get that one in another review). Of course, this whole back story about the skeleton being unearthed in Castle Dracula in Transylvania makes absolutely no sense in terms of continuity with any of the previous Dracula films but, hey, that seems to become the rule rather than the exception by this stage in the series of Universal horror films.

The other half of the film deals with Niemann not fulfilling his promises to either his assistant or to Larry Talbot, the Wolfman, who he thaws out along with the Frankenstein monster as, it turns out, the flood which engulfed the castle at the end of Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman merely washed them into a cave system under the castle where they were frozen solid for many years. Niemann has promised Larry a brand new brain for his help which, frankly, makes a lot less sense to me than just putting his current brain into a new body but, yeah, I’m not a scientist so what do I know about such things?

Anyway, as usual, things go wrong but, astonishingly, even though the Frankenstein monster and Lon Chaney in his human form share a couple of shots, the Wolfman incarnation doesn’t share screen time with the monster... so there’s not even a big showdown between these two like there was in a the previous installment. So, at the end of this one we have Dracula back as a skeleton, the Wolfman dead by a silver bullet (again, it’s only a temporary fix) and the Frankenstein monster engulfed by quicksand in much the same way that Kharis the mummy had sunk into a swamp the same year in The Mummy’s Ghost (reviewed here).

But, despite all this, the movie is rather well made and quite entertaining. Kenton seems to have an eye for the design and lighting of these things and there are some nice compositions which lead the eye into the centre of the frame quite a lot. Also some great scenes shot through vertical bars of windows and fences (and sometimes both) which make an impression... not to mention the placement of people at different heights to balance out the shots. And, of course, Hans J. Salter’s score does the usual thing and gives it the kind of music one always associates with these Universal monster pictures.

Admittedly, it’s a disappointment that at least two of the monsters don’t actually meet up properly in this one but these characters would all share the screen two more times for this era of Universal horrors and so, their time would come. House Of Frankenstein is one of the better B-movies of this era and a pleasure to watch every now and again... even if it features neither Frankenstein (it just features his more famous monster) nor, you know, his house. Essential viewing for admirers of these franchises, though, for sure.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Snake Eyes - GI Joe Origins







The Snake’s Progress


Snake Eyes
GI Joe Origins
Paramount Can
ada/USA 2021
Directed by Robert Schwentke

 
So once again, after a very long time, we have a third GI Joe film, Snake Eyes - GI Joe Origins. This one is not a sequel type of reboot (like the second movie) but a fresh reboot. I could kinda tell that because the main characters, Snake Eyes (played by played by Henry Golding) and Storm Shadow (played by Andrew Koji), are not played by the same actors from the previous films. That being said, it’s all very confusing if you try and shoehorn it into the previous movies and, frankly, they were already confusing enough.

Um... okay, the film deals with Snake Eyes, who spends his life trying to find the man who killed his father when he was a boy. Flash forward to the present and he gets himself involved with a ninja clan of ‘good guys’ who are allies of the GI Joes (represented in this movie by Samara Weaving as Scarlett) and enemies of COBRA (represented by Úrsula Corberó as The Baroness). It’s mostly about his training and moral ambiguity about who he’s really working for... and the way that question gets ultimately resolved by the end of the film.

And it’s a big, dumb blockbuster film with lots of action, not terribly credible characters and actors who look like they are trying to do their best with dialogue which, frankly, is riddled with clichés but without the requisite sense of self awareness behind the writing to allow the actors to elevate things beyond that, it seems to me. What this means is that you don’t really relate all that much to the characters either way (the moral ambiguity of the two leads really doesn’t help this) and, while there’s a lot of fun to the various action pieces... it all feels kinda flat at the same time with nothing much really at stake.

There’s another problem too, to my mind.

In one sequence, Snake Eyes slices open a cut on his hand and pushes it into a similar one from Storm Shadow, so they become blood brothers of sorts. Now, there is another motive for the title character in this scene which you’ll see very quickly after this but, the point is this... this is the only time you will see any blood spilled in the movie. Which is totally unrealistic because, the body count on this one is high and the primary fighting sequences here mostly play out with samurai swords. People getting sliced but not diced and, honestly, loads of people dying without seeming to spill a drop of blood. I mean come on... this really pushes the boundaries of credibility and is a cynical play on behalf of the filmmakers to get a lower cinema rating. And, yes, I know this film is meant to appeal to children as a huge part of the target audience but it really hurts the piece if everyone is dying by sword cuts and there’s no bleeding in sight. If you want to make a credible film for children then it’s very easy... don’t use a weapon of death which, by its very nature, raises the expectations of splashing body fluids as a direct consequence of the actions of the characters. This is too much to swallow.

Okay... this is a short review but I will say one positive in that some of the characters, including Snake Eyes, are likeable enough. That being said, I did notice a lot of the characters played by some famous actors seemed to have very flat delivery of their lines and almost no emotional content. It’s like somebody got a bunch of GI Joe action figures and breathed a semblance of life into these lumps of plastic and, as a result, their on screen presence was not much more than it would have been if we were watching said lump of plastic. For the record, due to the skill of some of these actors and actresses, I can only assume this was a deliberate piece of direction to inhabit the roles as flatly as possible so they do, in fact, more resemble the toys that they are based on. At least I hope that was the case.

However, some of the camera movements are nice, the colour schemes are good and the action choreography, bloodless as it is, is pretty exciting for a while. It’s also edited in a way which doesn’t lose you during the more fast paced scenes so, yeah, all competent movie making... just not necessarily great movie making, in this case. Oh... and believe it or not, Iko Uwais who played the lead character in both of The Raid movies has a big part in this and, considering we all know just how brilliant this guy can be, it’s sad to say that he is likeable but completely wasted in the movie. Like a lot of the cast, it has to be said.

The one thing I did think was okay was the score by Martin Todsharow... which was handy in my case because the only reason I bothered to watch this thing was because of the limited edition CD release of the score in the US. If it hadn’t got a proper CD release, I’d have to say I wouldn’t have bothered watching this one in the first place. So good on the company for at least cutting a CD deal and not giving us that compressed digital download rubbish that a lot of disrespectful companies seem to be peddling these days.

And yeah, that really is me done with Snake Eyes - GI Joe origins. It’s got action, adventure and is an okay watch... but I wouldn’t really recommend it to anyone over the age of 12, it has to be said. Now if someone would like to make a proper Action Man movie, along with an actor who can ‘do’ the eagle eyes, that would be a much more interesting proposition.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Arabella The Traitor Of Mars




Consider Phobos

Arabella The Traitor Of Mars
Written by David D. Levine
Tor Books ISBN: 978-0765382832


David D. Levine’s Arabella The Traitor Of Mars is, once again, an extraordinary and very special novel, being the third and, hopefully not final, tome rounding off the trilogy begun with Arabella Of Mars (reviewed here) and Arabella And The Battle Of Venus (reviewed here). And if you’re new to the truly wonderful fantasy world build by Levine, the novels tell of great Naval battles fought and explorations made in galleons sailing the air currents around the various planets in the Victorian era. They read, I’ll say again for any newcomers to the series, like a sly mixture of C. S. Forester, Jane Austen and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ interplanetary novels all rolled into one astounding science fiction package. And pardon me for gushing but it’s extremely rare I find a contemporary writer I actually like and, given the tragic circumstances under which this third tale was written (which I won’t go into here but you can read yourself in the afterword of the book), it seems like almost a miracle that this wonderful confection was ever written at all.

The novel is split into three main sections starting off with Section One - Earth 1816. Following the Battle Of Venus in the last book, where Arabella Ashby and her husband, Captain Singh and their latest companion Captain Fox were instrumental in helping Nelson defeat Napoleon in the air battle off Venus, Arabella finds herself back on Earth, getting along very well with the aid of her new clockwork foot, replacing the limb she lost at the end of her previous adventure. And the novel opens with a wonderfully atmospheric, icebound jubilee fair, on one of those rare occasions from olden days when the Thames used to freeze over and various stalls and games were introduced onto the frozen river. This is the first time that Arabella and her spouse have ever seen snow...

The scene then shifts to Brighton Pavilion, modelled after Venusian decor of course, when Arabella and her noble spouse are invited there by the Prince Of Wales. It is here, also, that Arabella is first introduced to a rare and decidedly overlooked gadget which turns out to be an early form of bicycle, which she helps improve and comes up with the idea of using pedals to increase its efficiency. However, a difficult and hard to decline offer from the Prince sees Arabella escaping Brighton to gain passage with Captain Fox to make the long journey to Mars, in order to warn them of the Prince’s plans to conquer and subjugate her home planet (she is human but was born and raised in the lighter gravity of Mars), with a fleet headed up by her newly promoted husband. She is thus, a traitor to her sovereign (as the English see it) and not a traitor to Mars, as was my initial concern when first reading the title of the book... but a traitor of Mars, as it more literally says.

Section Two - In Transit 1816, tells of the long journey to Mars and also of the arrival of a very welcome and unexpected ally. There’s also a battle with a giant space squid off of Mercury (the planet which Arabella is using to slingshot the crew of Fox’s ship into an air current to conduct them in a more efficacious manner towards Mars) and the discovery that the English intend to use underhanded tactics using a Venusian drug called Ulka, to subjugate the will of the Martians.


Section Three - Mars 1817 - 1819, tells of the long, harrowing and anxious preparations to equip various sympathetic concerns on Mars (not everyone wants to help maintain the independence of Arabella’s home-from-home planet, including a member of her own family who meant a lot to her in her past but who is now somewhat estranged and painted in villainous disposition), enabling them to at least attempt to hold their own against the mighty ships of the English. Much drama is wrought from the situation including more use of bicycles, a night time raid on drug smugglers to steal one of the Venusian animals which make the Helium gas needed to hold their own in their battles and, of course, a fleet (of sorts) with which to combat the menace. This all leads to two very exciting battles around the atmosphere of Phobos (a moon of Mars not discovered on Earth until much later than the setting of these stories in real life but, of course, in this alternate version of reality, the first human settlers on Mars would have discovered it for themselves straight away) and much damage is done to both sides, especially to the small Martian resistance hoping to turn the tide of battle. And of course I’m not going to tell you how all that goes, you need to read these books yourself but, I have to say, this one is probably even better than the last one as far as ‘edge of your seat suspense’ goes. Levine’s style of writing these tales, a kind of modernised appropriation of the stylistic writing of Jules Verne (I mean that as a compliment, for sure) is at once engaging and allows for a real empathy with the various characters and situations, breathing life into a tale of imagination which already has a lot going for it and which is only enhanced further by the fact that it’s incredibly well written and extremely entertaining.

And that’s me done with this saga for now... I can only hope the writer decides to come back to these characters at some point. There is a small, epilogue section set on Mars in 1828, where we see how the survivors of the last battle of the book have moved on nine years after and, frankly, a sequel could easily continue on from this point in time. It’s also a charming epilogue and a reminder of the sometime human characteristics of a certain automaton, whose inclusion in the novels is absolutely vital to the success of the campaigns and adventures related in the trilogy. I can only recommend Arabella The Traitor Of Mars as being another full-on and quite colourful entertainment, which I’m sure all great lovers of science fiction (and Naval warfare, for that matter) would embrace with an enthusiasm equalling my own. My one caveat is that, if you are entirely new to the series, don’t use this one as a jumping on point, go back to the first two novels and read the trilogy as a whole to get the best emotional investment from it. A truly splendid and joyous sequence of tales from start to finish.

Monday, 13 September 2021

Malignant




Back To Front

Malignant
USA/China 2021
Directed by James Wan
Warner Brothers


Wow, this is amazing. I do seem to get on really well with the output of James Wan as a director, it has to be said. Malignant is... well it’s not a horror movie like many other of this director’s films, although you wouldn’t necessarily know it until you start to figure things out as the early appearances of the film’s main antagonist are depicted in a fashion that, if you don’t know the trick, certainly appears to be coming from the canon of supernatural horror. Now, I could go into all the ins and outs of the film here but I really do owe it to Mr. Wan, after making such a good movie, to try and not let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, by putting spoilers into the review where they could be easily found.

What I will say, however, is that the film is, as far as I’m concerned, a kind of souped up reboot... okay, lets call it a 'genuine homage'... of one of my favourite all time thrillers. Now, to mention the director of that thriller would be a spoiler in itself and, to be fair to Wan, the film is a further twist on the central concept, allowing it to go in a slightly different direction... so I will say that, if you want to see which film I think was the inspiration for this one, you can find my review of it here.

Now the film itself involves a wonderful prologue featuring an, as yet, unglimpsed creature called Gabriel at the Simeon Research Hospital in 1993. This is a brutal and violent set up to give you an idea of what this dangerous creature is like. We then have a beautifully gritty montage title sequence of things which may clue you in on some important elements of the creature’s story, if you watch closely enough, before jumping to the present day and meeting the main protagonist, Madison, played by Annabelle Wallis. She’s pregnant and, after her husband beats her, she dreams of his death by supernatural antagonist... something which seems to have actually happened when she wakes and goes down to investigate, before said ‘entity’ attacks her and she wakes up in hospital, having lost the baby. We also meet her sister played by Maddie Hasson, two nicely written cops played by George Young and Michole Briana White and, a little later, another mystery character played by Jean Louisa Kelly. Actually, this last character was interesting because she works in... and is terrorised by the film’s main antagonist in... that underground city in Seattle. This is the first time I can remember it being featured in a movie since the second of the original two Carl Kolchak TV movies, The Night Strangler (the sequel to The Night Stalker, before the spin off TV series tried to ride the back of it).

Okay, that’s all I am going to say other than... the main twists in this movie are not so hard to figure out from, frankly, very early on in the movie (you’ll probably get their within 5-10 minutes of the opening credits) but that’s not a problem for me because the nature of the way that twist is revealed and explored and the way it opens up the story is wonderfully executed and still brings the odd surprise along to sweeten the deal. For example, I was aware fairly quickly that the killer was walking and running backwards but, I didn’t figure out the significance of that until the last third of the movie... which is nice. Also, my confusing the ‘mystery woman’ with the main lead at one point, made more sense once certain things were made clear (again in the last third of the movie). So yeah, colour me impressed.

Impressed too with the wonderful cinematography, frame designs and editing. James Wan has gone for a lot of shots which are accented along vertical lines but he also tends to pitch the main focus of the frame at the centre (something which I tend to think of as being a bit old school and it reminds me of something I saw British director Terence Fisher doing in a movie recently). It works perfectly here though and the way it's edited creates a nice rhythm as the shots, because of how they are framed, segue into each other without pulling the viewer onto another part of the screen in a jarring manner.

Such as a brilliant shot where the vertical gives way to the exterior of a window split into a huge grid. The camera slowly zooms in on the exterior as we see the face of one of the characters on the phone through a tiny rectangle making up one of the panes of glass in the frame. A really nice piece of cinema right there which shows just how much a master of his game Wan has become. It’s nice stuff.

What’s also nice is the music from Wan’s longtime collaborator, composer Joseph Bishara, who certainly provides a really wonderful score to this which is befitting exactly the kind of movie which I think has inspired the director. Actually, more than anything, the score to this reminded me a lot of Riz Ortolani’s score for Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture A Duckling which, frankly, is a heck of a score to be compared to. I hope that, should the composer ever read this, he takes it as a complement. It’s got a refreshingly ‘old school’ sense of experimental sound scoring which really lends itself to this incredible movie. And, as usual, Watertower records are not helping out when it comes to trying to buy the score. This thing is only available as a stupid, compressed electronic download and not as a proper CD once more, which I find really infuriating and... honestly, I just can’t type properly when I consider this music company’s crimes against filmanity.

And that’s me pretty much done with Malignant, although I will be first in line to grab a Blu Ray when this one comes out... it’s an instant classic. The film is a little on the gory side (I didn’t realise this until a friend of mine told me it was supposed to be quite violent after I recommended it to them... and I suppose it kinda is) but it’s not so over the top that it’s any more violent than a lot of movies made in the 1970s and 80s... perhaps it is a bit of a contrast to all the toned down violence we are usually familiar with at the cinema these days. Anyway... that really is all I’ve got to say now on this one. I would absolutely recommend this to fans of 1970s thrillers and, yes, even though it’s really not a horror movie, I think the target audience of that genre would also get a blast out of this one, to be honest. Don’t miss out.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Stillwater

 




Run Deep

Stillwater
USA 2021
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Dreamworks


Okay, just a short review of a long but solid film. I’ve been wanting to see Stillwater since I first caught a trailer for it in my local cinema a couple of months ago. I have a soft spot for Matt Damon since seeing him in films like The Bourne Identity and Dogma although, I don’t exactly go and see everything he’s in. I think he’s a remarkable actor though and I think sometimes he could do better with his choice of roles. And, heck, this movie is definitely one of his better choices.

Stillwater refers to a place in Ohio where Damon’s character, Bill, lives and works in construction... when he can’t get work digging holes for oil rigs. However, five years before this movie begins, his daughter Alison, played by Abigail Breslin (Little Rock in the Zombieland movies), is accused and found guilty of murdering her Arabian girlfriend, where she’s studying in Marseilles in France. Just after this movie starts, Bill goes to Marseiiles to visit his partially estranged daughter in jail and it’s then that he gets hooked into the possibility his daughter brings up of some new evidence that might prove her innocence and name the real murderer of the girl.

So, not being a rich person and unable to interest either his daughter's lawyers or being able to afford a private detective, he stays in Marseilles, picking up construction work there and tries to clear his daughter’s name himself. In the process he is befriended by an actress, Virginie, played by Camille Cottin (who can help him translate stuff as he doesn’t speak a word of French) and her young daughter Maya, played by Lilou Siauvaud, who he becomes a kind of father figure to.

And that’s really all I want to say because a) I don’t want to spoil it for you and b) because you will probably reach your own conclusions about how the story is going to go way before many of the characters cotton onto what’s going to happen. I will say, though, that  it’s a very dramatic film and the actors are all absolutely amazing in this. Damon fleshes out his ‘roughneck’ character as being a deeply religious man and someone who is busy redeeming himself for his past sins and trying to do the right thing by both his daughter and himself.

The photography on this one uses a lot of hand held camera stuff. It’s not especially jerky or unwatchable in any way but it’s one of those kinds of movies where the camera is responsive to capturing details and actors as they come up and following through the impetus of the shot accordingly, rather than using either big sweeping movement or, indeed, all that many static shots. What this means is that the film projects a kind of voyeuristic, fly on the wall atmosphere which is surprisingly not ruined by the great Mychael Danna’s low key score when it kicks in for the odd scene or two, here and there. This makes for some very immersive viewing and, despite it’s length, it never fails to be anything but an interesting and compelling drama.

Now, there is one thing which is a shame, in that there really are no surprises in the movie. You will probably twig both a certain ‘third act’ plot twist way before it comes along and you’ll probably figure out how and where the various characters are going to end up before the story’s finish. Sometimes this can ruin a movie but, I would say that in this case it really doesn’t do much damage and, well, sometimes the expected endings are clung on to because they happen to be the ones that work the best. It’s a shame, though, that one of the scenes near the end of the movie, where there is supposed to be a lot of suspense and tension, is kind of booby trapped by a shot a few minutes before which suggests that one of the key characters is not under as much threat as they themselves think they are. Which was a shame but, like I said, didn’t really harm the film any.

So, yeah, I said this was a short review and I meant it. Stillwater was an entertaining slice of life style drama which is mostly effective and which certainly entertains. It does kind of have that ‘Hollywood trying to take itself too seriously’ stamp on it but, again, it doesn’t harm the final product and it’s an enjoyable watch. It felt to me like it’s one of those films which Jack Nicholson that might have latched onto and won and Oscar for in the early 1970s like Five Easy Pieces and Matt Damon does a very good job of that kind of part. Definitely one to catch if you like those sort of dramas. I’m really glad I got to see this one. 

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Lucifer's Women/Doctor Dracula




Svengali VS Dracula

Lucifer’s Women
USA 1974 Directed by Paul Aratow

Doctor Dracula
USA 1978 Directed by
Al Adamson & Paul Aratow
Rafael Films/AIP/Vinegar Syndrome Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: Yeah, this one has spoilers
if you’re worried about that kind of stuff.


This is another one of those stories where a film was made, Lucifer’s Women... and then, four years later, Al Adamson was asked to direct a whole load of new scenes and recut it with bits of the original picture, making and releasing what amounts to a completely different movie with kind of ‘guest highlights’ from the first version. In many cases the originals were often better than Adamson’s, admittedly enthusiastic effort to turn them into completely different films and, yeah, this one is no exception.

Lucifer’s Women is a case of the original being thought lost until the wonderful Vinegar Syndrome label managed to release an uncut, fully restored version of it to Blu Ray a couple of years ago. I’m really glad they did because, otherwise, the Adamson excerpts would have been all that remained of what is actually a pretty good movie. I’ll review the original first.

Lucifer’s Women is a real gem... a kind of marriage of an occult plot mixed with soft core pornography. This one stars Larry Hankin as an academic writer who has published a book about Svengali, only to have been helped by the ‘Bleeding Rose’ society in the form of his publisher, a black psychic, to become possessed by the spirit of Svengali himself. So Hankin is Svengali, who is also, on occasion, fighting a battle with his former self to control his host body.

The film starts strongly with one of his magic shows (there are at least two magic acts by him in the film) where he levitates a woman and cuts off her clothing so she’s floating topless. I don’t know what night clubs he plays but we never got magic shows like this on television in the UK in the seventies.

Anyway, his publisher wants him to procure a specific girl, Trilby, played by the wonderful Jane Brunel-Cohen. She is one of a number of strippers who work in a night club run by obnoxious pimp Roland, played by Paul Thomas (oh yeah, I’ll get to him in a minute). Svengali’s task is to bring the girl to his publisher Sir Stephen (played by Norman Pierce) in seven days’ time... because she has a pure, psychically charged soul she is not aware of... and hypnotically manipulate her while having sex in a black magic ritual with Sir Stephen so that she first kills Stephen on the stroke of midnight at the point of orgasm... and then kills herself so that his soul can be reborn in her body.

However, complicating things is the fact that Svengali’s body’s former personality is falling in love with Trilby. Shenanigans ensue and the film has a wonderful, laid back charm of its own as another girl also falls prey to Sir Stephen and his occultist friends, while Trilby and her fellow stripper and room mate indulge in lesbian sex ripped straight from the pages of an underground comic book she is reading. Finally, there's a threesome with their boss Roland... who is later put in a trance by Svengali and accidentally gets run over because of it.

There’s a bizarre double ending too, where Svengali’s former personality rescues the girl and everyone else dies... but, as they run off, another Svengali and all his friends are suddenly alive again, watching and laughing from the grounds of their big house. It’s a little like the end of Fellini’s Eight And A Half in tone, rather than a conclusion from which you are meant to gain any insight from, I think.

But, I found myself thoroughly entertained as it’s a nice little movie including an interesting score which has a kind of mild atonalism with creepy but charming synthesiser overlays on top of it in some sections. And some interesting personalities... despite what one of his co-stars says of him in the extras, Larry Hankin is a tremendous Svengali. He has hypnotic, expressive eyes and a kind of laid back attitude which really works for him and the movie. Jane Brunel-Cohen is absolutely amazing too, giving off ‘young Margot Kidder’ vibes and channeling that same kind of ‘naive innocent energy’. I can’t believe that her only other credit, apart from archival footage from this used in Adamson’s Doctor Dracula, was as a masseuse in Freebie And The Bean. This woman should have gone on to be a huge star, if there was any justice in the world.

And then there’s Paul Thomas. Starring in almost 400 adult movies and directing almost 500 of them to date, Paul Thomas is a porn star who also had a mainstream movie career around the same time, for a bit... you may recognise him as playing Peter in the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar. And he gives a hilarious, 20 minute interview about his time on the film (one of his last mainstream movies) and his career in general. In one story he talks about the threesome involving Jane Brunel-Cohen and how she didn’t want his ‘hard cock’ touching her because she wasn’t a porn actress. He says that usually, on one of his porn shoots, the crew has to keep taking breaks to enable the lead male actor to be able to achieve and maintain his erection again for the next shot... which is a hard thing to do, apparently. Here, it was the exact opposite situation... he was so enamoured of the actress that he kept getting an erection and, since it was an R rated movie, they couldn’t afford to have his penis getting into the shots... so they kept having to take breaks to try and get his erection to cease and desist while piecing together the scene. It’s a great extra and worth a watch almost as much as the film.

And then there’s Doctor Dracula. Okay, so Adamson has a new, animated title sequence more in keeping with many of his other movies of this time. He grafts a completely new story onto it involving psychiatrist Dr. Gregorio (played by Geoffrey Land) who kills a lady at the start by biting her on the neck... as he’s really Dracula. The film uses bits of the Lucifer’s Women footage as a background canvass for Dracula’s efforts to stop the Bleeding Rose Society, now headed up by John Carradine in a number of spliced in scenes trying to look like they all belong with the original movie.

It’s about what you’d expect from one of Adamson’s more ‘hands on’ cut and paste jobs and some of the scenes kind of make sense and others don’t. Adamson’s characters are all played by completely different actors in fresh roles (including his wife Regina Carrol, giving some bad line readings in this) but he did manage to get Larry Hankin back for a few new scenes in an effort to integrate the two films together more credibly... including a scene where Hankin crosses two candles in an effort to kill Dracula, but dies instead.

The bizarre thing is... although Adamson adds scenes of women undressing and having baths... you never see any nudity in this cut of the movie. This includes all the footage recycled from the original film, where the sex and nudity has been completely excised from this ‘lowlights’ version. This must have made for some bizarre jumps in logic for people who hadn’t seen Lucifer’s Women. For example, when asked about the nature of what she does, Trilby talks about it just being a job and, unless you had seen the original cut where you see she works as a stripper in a night club, you might have been scratching your head at this point wondering what the heck they are talking about.

Similarly, the character of Roland is barely glimpsed in one brief scene from the start in this one... he’s been taken out almost completely. So when Svengali confesses in a throw away line to Trilby later that he’s killed him, the audience must have found it strange, to say the least, that this character had killed someone... especially since it’s someone they don’t know about. Cutting these scenes back into a completely different movie sure makes for a lot of problems here, that’s for sure. Not to mention the  comic moments of a night club audience watching a magic show then cutting to a close up of people like John Carradine, who are also suddenly supposed to be part of the same audience. Stuff like this kept me smiling, for sure but, not necessarily for the right reasons.

I found it interesting that both directors used posters in character's bedrooms from famous films but that, neither shot made it into each other’s version. In Lucifer’s Women, Trilby has a Sands Of Iwo Jima poster in her apartment. In Doctor Dracula, random female victim number ‘whatever’ has a poster for Cassavetes’ A Woman Under The Influence in her house. So we have one director acknowledging his admiration for classic Hollywood and Adamson showing his support of the contemporary independent scene. Good stuff.

At the end of Doctor Dracula, the film finishes with the cult all deceased and then, when Dracula gets into a car with one of his victim’s daughters (played by Susie Ewing), she blows the car up with a remote device in her hand, killing them both. Being as this is Adamson, I immediately recognised the shot of the car blowing up as featuring in at least one of his other movies. I’m not sure if it was recycled for this one or whether this was the first use of the footage but, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

And that’s me done on these two. I had a really good time with Lucifer’s Women and would recommend it... not such a good time at all with the Adamson, recalibrated Doctor Dracula version but at least it’s interesting to see how that director would take the material and reshape it, although I’d probably say steer clear of that version. Either way, Vinegar Syndrome’s welcome Blu Ray release of the 'two on one' edition is pretty good and worth the admission price, as far as I’m concerned. So thanks to them for their ‘Half Way To Black Friday’ sale, where I picked up a few of their titles.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Don't Breathe 2




A Breath
Of Redemption


Don't Breathe 2
USA/Serbia 2021
Directed by Rodo Sayagues
Sony Pictures


Warning: Slight spoilers about the structure
of the story and a few minor reveals.


Well this is a bit of a surprise. Contrary to my expectations, I quite liked the fraught, tension filled movie Don’t Breathe (reviewed here) a few years ago but didn’t think much of any of the main protagonists, nor the villanous antagonist of the Blind Man (played so well by Stephen Lang). However, the morality of the characters aside, I had a very intense time at the cinema with it but didn’t see that it was worth going down the sequel route, even though the ending to the last one was deliberately left loose for a sequel thread to be pulled if necessary.

Then I saw the trailer for Don’t Breathe 2 and I absolutely bought in on the idea. The writers and director of the original film have really tried to take things in a different direction here. I mean, sure the theme of home invasion meets lethal force of resistance is still the main meat and vegetables of the film but, they’ve managed to turn the nasty, villanous Blind Man here into the main, almost heroic protagonist and have given him a real shot at redemption (of a sort).

The film starts off with a little girl surviving a fire. Eight years later she’s been ‘adopted’ by the Blind Man, who keeps her mostly safe and tries to teach her survival techniques. However, she attracts the attention of someone who may or may not have ties to her traumatic past and, as the audience is clued in from an early TV news broadcast, the intentions of these people probably don’t have her best interests at heart. So they storm the new home of the Blind Man to get her back... which is usually a big mistake, right?

Okay, so there’s a little bit of the 'same old same old' during the first half of the movie but, although the Blind Man is as lethal as those sent to both kill him and abduct the girl for their own nefarious purposes, he’s by no means invincible like, say, one of his nearest cinematic counterparts, Zatoichi (kind of)... he’s seen getting hurt a lot and he doesn’t always make the right decisions when it comes to a firefight nor, indeed, with his upbringing of the girl herself (played very nicely by Madelyn Grace).

The film is rendered in very desaturated colours (plus a lot of the old clichéd orange and teal lighting) but it all looks really good and there are some outstanding sequences and ideas which play well in the movie... such as another homage to the cracking glass scene in Spielberg’s The Lost World - Jurassic Park 2, this time over a blazing inferno of a greenhouse. Another nice thing is when an early character who is set up and immediately has the audience's sympathy, is killed off fairly quickly so you are sure the villains are pretty evil. Also, they kill a dog so, yeah, they’re bad! One amazing moment of thought out peril in the vein of the old ‘tying the lady to the railroad tracks’ school of filmmaking involves an electric wheelchair and a handcuffed girl, slowly rolling its way towards a precipice. It’s all good stuff and coupled with Roque Banos’ wonderful score (sadly not on CD so far), it all works really well.

One of the nice things about the film is, although the nature of the last act plays out in a similar fashion to the first... it’s still people bashing each other up in an enclosed, dark area but in a much larger space... it’s different from both the first movie and the first part of this one in that, it’s no longer set on the Blind Man’s home turf. His homebase, so to speak, is destroyed by fire as both he and an obvious way to track the bad guys are left for dead in the fiery aftermath of the their swathe of destruction. So, in the last third of the movie, he tracks them by... well, it’s another cliché but a welcome one... and brings the fight home to them in their own space. Coming in like some kind of blind, savage deux ex machina just as the girl is about to fall foul of the criminal’s, almost but really not quite, sympathetic intentions.

The film does, indeed, bring some self realisation and redemption in terms of the Blind Man. They don’t pull the rug again like in the previous film... but his fate is, well it may or may not be certain. This one is all about the final freeing of the girl to go on to lead a life that she can make for herself but... there might be room for more. All I’m saying on that is, if you stay in your seat once the first part of the end credits play out, you will be treated to a predictable but nonetheless welcome little sequence which is deliberately ambiguous but, obviously only ambiguous in so much as if this one makes a tonne of money, you could see room for a possible sequel. 

So that’s my final word on Don’t Breathe 2. A taut little action piece with an unlikely pair of protagonists and a similarly ‘shades of grey’ set of antagonists. If you liked the first movie then this is a nice follow up and a good effort at doing the constant sequel juggling act of staying the same but also doing something different.
 

Tuesday, 7 September 2021

Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!




Car-Tharg-sis!
The Real Space Spinner!


Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!
2000AD And Judge Dredd:
The Secret History...

by Pat Mills
Millsverse Books
ISBN: 9780995661233


Pat Mills, it turns out, was something of an influence on my thinking at a certain age, although the penny only fully dropped on that a year or two ago when he started following me on my Twitter timeline. I can’t remember why he followed me but I suspect it’s either because I read and reviewed Steve MacManus’ book The Mighty One - My Life Inside The Nerve Centre (reviewed here) which I really enjoyed or because I reviewed the documentary Future Shock - The Story Of 2000AD (reviewed here). Either way, he was the one responsible for what has always been known as ‘the galaxy’s greatest comic’ in our house and, although it wasn’t always his stories which were my favourites (some of them definitely were though... like the Judge Dredd epic The Curses Earth), it’s him I’ve got to thank for one of the great parts of my childhood.

So, let me deviate here and throw myself into this for a minute or two. If you are a regular reader of my blog, I apologise for covering any old ground. When I was 9 years old, in 1977, me and my dad spotted the first issue of a brand new British comic in newsagents which boasted all new hyper-thrilling adventures of one of my dad’s favourite comic book characters when he was a kid... Dan Dare. Also it had a free Space Spinner... which was an enticement that’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds. So my dad bought it and we both liked it a lot (not so much the Space Spinner). Now, I was already into comics with American titles like Shazam, Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Casper The Friendly Ghost... but in terms of British comics, well, I regularly read The Beezer (which is a comic I still miss to this day). When I was recovering from a horrendous car collision which sent two cars careening off onto the pavement towards me, nearly ending my life, one of the comics my folks brought to me in hospital was Action (something which was also a product of the mind of Pat Mills, it seems) but I never got around to reading any future issues of that one.

2000AD, a comic created by Pat and most famous, perhaps, for the inclusion of another of his co-creations from Issue 2... that would be Judge Dredd... got its hooks into both my father and I straight away. My dad, in fact, decided we would have it delivered by the newsagent every Sunday, a day on which we tended to stay in bed a bit later in those days until about 9am (I really should look into resurrecting that habit). So our regular Sunday morning would be... the comic would come through the letter box around 8am. I would rush down to grab it and read it in bed while my dad made tea. I would then bring it into my parent’s bedroom so my dad could read it and then, of course, we’d also have something to talk about. Most of the time our opinions would be in agreement on the best strips... although my dad liked both Rogue Trooper and Strontium Dog a  lot more than I. Our favourite stories were Harlem Heroes, Robo Hunter, Ace Trucking and, of course, the greatest literary experience of my life, The Ballad Of Halo Jones.

Well, if you are like me and had (or perhaps still have, I stopped reading and buying the comic sometime in the 1990s when it seemed to be a bit ‘meh’) a relationship with the comic and its rich array of characters, you will possibly be interested in this book, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD And Judge Dredd: The Secret History... which does all it says on the tin and more besides. While it’s possibly not as detailed as I’d like, it is both informative and, well, because it’s Pat Mills, written in a very entertaining and easy to understand manner. It’s also very outspoken about the shabby treatment the British comics industry has inflicted on the creative forces which bring the money in to the publishers and, rightly so. As I’ve read his tweets over the last few years, I’ve realised that, quite besides the point that he is a stand up guy (it would seem to me... as much as you can judge anybody by what they write) he is also quite honest in his unmasking and revealing of the very real villains of the publishing world and the injustices done in the trade.

And, putting all that stuff aside... there’s some amazing things covered in the book which, like a fine wine, kind of whets the appetite and makes you wonder if there’s anymore. For instance, he talks about the lack of working class heroes in fiction at the time and suggests that this could well be a deliberate thing, citing the famous characters written by Ian Fleming, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and John Buchan as examples of a tendency to write about upper class figures of respect as a way of enforcing the way that class is perceived. Now, I’d never thought of James Bond as an upper class character before - I like him but I’ve always thought of him as a kind of highly paid thug but, oh yeah, ‘highly’ paid... yeah, okay, this sounds about right then. I’m going to have to re-evaluate some of this stuff so that’s a plus point in Mills’ favour right there... I realised very early on when I started this, that it wasn’t going to be just another passive read (thank goodness).

He talks about a variety of subjects of interest to old school readers of 2000AD (at least... maybe to some younger readers too, a cautionary tale) and I learned a lot of things such as the very existence of people like Doug Church, who would draw stick figure layouts of the pages of the comic for the early artists to emulate because he knew exactly how to design a dramatic and eye catching page. I also learned about such things as Mills discovering (with a very slight push) the great comic artist Simon Bisley (who was working on a building site before he gave him a break), the very first time a character (in a completely different comic he was working on, Valiant) used a belly wheel which would later be a semi-regular feature of Judge Dredd and, also, how he conceived some of the early covers as ‘re-appropriating Lichtenstein’... I’m not sure I can explain that last completely and do justice here but, have a read of this book, it’s fascinating stuff.

Other delights include the real evil people of his childhood, on whom he based villains like Torquemada of the Nemesis The Warlock strip, the development and the reasons why he thinks the excellent sister comic Crisis failed after thirty odd issues, the creation of Slaine, the two times he resurrected Dan Dare (first for 2000AD and then for the new version of Eagle) and, well lots of things I’d forgotten about, like a brief mention of the comic Revolver. It also gets very interesting when he starts talking about the failure of a whole batch of characters and potential film/TV shows which never materialised... and the reason why that was the case.

And I also learned certain things about his interest in the occult and belief, from his personal experience,  in certain things extra terrestrial... which he very lightly touches on and is possibly a brave admission from someone of his stature... but I get the feeling he’s just an honest guy so, why wouldn’t he admit stuff like that. Something he quotes here, “If you take an interest in the Unknown, it will take an interest in you.” reminded me of why I stopped my research into alien abduction stories about twenty years ago... I was losing too much sleep from all that stuff and, well, anyway I stopped looking into that subject.

One thing I do definitely remember, which originated from Mr. Mills, was the introductory try out appearance of Nemesis The Warlock in Terror Tube. I remember being fascinated by it at the time but not really understanding the concept all that well. It would take a while for me to get into the full story arcs when they were published but I got there in the end. Another thing I definitely do remember is the amount of pain he caused me after the publication of the second issue of 2000AD. Pain in the bath tub, where no amount of water would wrest those damned ‘free gift’ Biotronic stickers from my arms, legs and forehead. I guess I learned something that day.

Three things I came away with from reading this... firstly, Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD And Judge Dredd: The Secret History... by Pat Mills is an absolutely fascinating and interesting tome and I’m glad I took the time to finally grab a copy. Secondly, I need to take a look at a movie adaptation of one of his comic strips I’ve not read, Accident Man, at some point and, thirdly, I need to look at some of the other stuff he’s written besides just his comic book and graphic novel work. There are a lot of pointers in a kind of appendix section at the back of this book with some interesting links and further reading. And if you want to see what he’s been up to lately, including the launch of his new comic book Space Warp, then get yourself over to millsverse.com and check the guy out... he seems to be one of those rare ‘forces for good’ in the world and seems like a genuinely nice person. Either way, give this book a read if you remember the early days of 2000AD with something like the affection that I do, for sure.
Cover illustration by Alex Ronald.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Jungle Cruise




Conquist Adore

Jungle Cruise
Disney USA  2021
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra


Well this is a huge slice of fun filled family adventure for cinemagoers, during the illusory 'let up' from the perils of Covid. Jungle Cruise is based on the long standing Disney theme park ride of the same name and was originally started into development after the success of the first of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies (also based on a Disney ride with a long history). It wasn’t until Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) came along as a producing partner that the film finally got properly off the ground and realised in the form you see it in now. Which is pretty much an action adventure much like the Indiana Jones, Lara Croft or Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy movies.

After a long, historical flash back sequence filling in the audience of a plot device involving the magical, supernaturally charged ‘Petals Of The Moon’ which can cure all ills and can be found with the aid of a specific sacred arrow head, if it happens to be in your possession... the film starts off in “London, England 1916 - Two years into the Great War.” Here we meet adventuress Lily Houghton, played by the always brilliant Emily Blunt and her brother, played by Jack Whitehall, as she manages to ‘acquire’ the arrowhead to enable her, in theory, to track down the Petals Of The Moon. We then get yet another long but very funny sequence set in Brazil (where much of the action takes place), where we are introduced to river cruise skipper Frank Wolff, played by Dwayne Johnson. It’s only after this third, long introduction that we finally get the opening credits.

Then, when Lily turns up in Brazil, she charters Frank’s boat and services on the long expedition into the jungle to find the mysterious petals, being chased and threatened by a real life German villain, Prince Joachim, played by Jesse Plemons, who also wants to harness the petals for his own nefarious purposes. And we also have some other fine actors and actresses rounding off the cast too, like the magnificent Paul Giamatti, the wonderful Veronica Falcón (Perry Mason’s Mexican girlfriend in the first season of the latest TV show about that character) and Edgar Ramírez playing the conquistador Aguirre. And, yes, that’s the same Aguirre who was also portrayed on film by Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s Aguirre - The Wrath Of God.

Also, the movie both honours the Disney theme park attraction it was based on but, furthermore, there are both visual and verbal shout outs to the film that inspired that ride scattered throughout. Namely the brilliant Humphrey Bogart, Katy Hepburn, John Huston movie The African Queen... although the spirit of the movie is somewhat different in its execution here.

And its great... full of spectacular and unlikely action set pieces and comedy which are just the ticket for a wonderful evening’s entertainment... all helped along by a rousing score (sadly not on a CD so I can’t hear it away from the movie) by James Newton-Howard. And if that wasn’t enough, Johnson cracks what have now become known as ‘dad jokes’ all the way through. And when I say ‘dad jokes’ of course, I really mean excruciatingly brilliant puns which endeared me to his character no end. Yep, this film is absolutely puntastic, it has to be said. Lines like “We’re heading into headhunter territory, which is a terrible place to be-headed.” are the best way to this cinema-goer’s heart, for sure and I think every movie should feature more lines like this.

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a beautifully rendered alternative look at the ‘animated lines on a map’ style of giving the audience a geography fix and, about three quarters of the way through, an absolutely brilliant character reveal which ties one of the main characters into the shenanigans at the set up of the movie, going back all those hundreds of years. It’s really great stuff and even has a cute CGI leopard as Frank’s constant companion. Although... about that...

Okay, so there’s usually one thing wrong, at least, with a movie and sadly, like so many other modern film’s Achilles heel, it’s the CGI animals. None of the animals look really very good but, bearing in mind how much training and other tomfoolery you would have had to do with various creatures to satisfy the writing, I think it’s a fair trade off and you just have to suspend your disbelief for that element of the film.

And that’s me done on Jungle Cruise. It’s a short review of a long movie but, honestly, there’s not too much to say about it because it’s an absolutely perfect family fun adventure film which really captivates and entertains from beginning to end. I will absolutely be first in line to grab this when it comes out on Blu Ray so I can show it to my family on Christmas Eve this year. I loved it and would absolutely recommend this one to most people I know. 

Sunday, 5 September 2021

Antidote




Heal List

Antidote
USA 2021
Directed by Peter Daskaloff
Souvenir Films


Warning: Mild spoilers.

Another FrightFest UK premiere this year was Peter Daskaloff’s Antidote. It’s a relatively fast paced and effective film but I was kinda torn because it’s also a very obvious film with no real surprises at the end. Indeed, it almost seems a variation on a theme in terms of a few movies I’ve seen recently but, I’ll try my best to not spoil any of the moments which may surprise some viewers.

Okay, right from the start of the movie, where we see the aftermath of the death of the main protagonist’s ex-boyfriend, ten years before the main narrative picks up, I felt I was in good hands in terms of how the movie was made. The soundtrack, which is problematic in that it’s a hodge podge of different cues by different composers, if you look at the end credits (although the principal credit at the start of the film is Ryan Harrison), is actually very good. It feels like a few modern horror scores but really gets under the skin from the get go and it reminded me, in some ways, of the music used on the trailers of Hereditary a few years ago.

Then we meet the main protagonist, Sharyn, played by Ashlynn Yennie. She wakes up with a ruptured appendix and is rushed into hospital by her current boyfriend and daughter for emergency surgery. When she wakes up, instead of being in a regular hospital, she is in an experimental facility where different people are mutilated by the doctors and then cured with a special serum... an antidote to death... so they can then be tortured all over again. There are various ordeals on offer plus punishments if you try and escape. So Sharyn gets her foot and part of her leg sawed off, for example, when she tries to run before she gets it stapled back on and the serum fixes it after a while so it’s as good as new.

It’s nicely claustrophobic and as Sharyn’s back story plays out in flashback sequences, we have the head doctor, played by Louis Mandylor, in a truly sinister and emotionally muffled turn, questioning her as to various incidents in her past. This probing into her former life is, alas, the thing which tipped me off from very early on in the film, as to what is really going on here. Coupled with the visual knowledge that exactly the same torture is being inflicted on various ‘patients’... so eye gouging, tongue removal, burning alive etc... before they are cured to have it done again at some point, I sadly put together the obvious ‘twist’ reveal of the last 20 minutes of the movie extremely quickly near the start. Which is a shame because, other than tipping off the audience from very early on... well, it’s an otherwise well acted and nicely shot movie.

I won’t reveal anything about the central idea here other than to say, if you are suspicious about things then, when you finally see the name of the head doctor revealed about halfway through the movie, you’ll definitely figure it out for sure. Luckily, his name also points to a possible escape for Sharyn from her current situation and, I’d have to say, it was nice that I still felt that the end could go either way in terms of the central protagonist and where she finally ends up.

Enough about the ending, which I’m pretty sure most people figured out by the time it finished. The point is the hair raising subject matter has its moments but isn’t too gory or horrendous to actually watch and while the set pieces of violence (which mostly seem to be done practically rather than with an abundance of CGI) are there to give a kind of reminder and lively punctuation to the through line of the movie, the heart of the piece is definitely on the emphasis on the mystery element rather than anything else and this is what keeps you watching. After all, no matter if you have got it all figured out by 20 minutes into the movie, there’s always a chance you’re going to be wrong, right?

Perhaps the biggest ally in terms of attempting to keep the secret of the movie is the title of the film itself, Antidote. This suggests a medical horror and doesn’t take the usual route pursued when it comes to naming this particular sub-genre of horror film. Also, something which does help is that, even after you’ve figured out the central ‘trick’ of the movie, there’s some nice stuff at the end that lets you think about the possibility, or lack thereof, of hope for the majority of the patients depicted in the story. Again, I can’t say too much but if you do feel this movie is a bit of a one trick pony, it is nevertheless a quite stylishly conceived pony ride with a nice little Easter egg of content to ruminate on as the credits roll.

And that’s me done with Antidote. A not terribly surprising but certainly fascinating and entertaining exploration of a certain horrific theme which should at least keep fans of the genre amused for a while. Glad I got the opportunity to see this one. Perhaps a few little tweaks and less of a ‘wink wink’ name for the main doctor might have let it keep its secrets for a little longer, though.

Review by Alan Smithee ;-)

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Killer Concept




Development Hell

Killer Concept
Dead Leaf Productions USA 2021
Directed by Glenn Payne


Warning: Minor spoilers.

Having its European premiere at this year’s FrightFest was Killer Concept. The film is written by Casey Dillard and directed by Glenn Payne. The two also star as two thirds of the trio of main protagonists in the movie, Dillard as Holly - a true crime writer who is trying to work on the production of an independent movie, Payne as Mark - collaborating as the photographer/cinematographer on the film and, rounding out the three main characters is Coley Bryant as Seth, the would be director and fictional co-writer of the film.

The film takes place over the space of a few days and is mostly the heated but very funny development meetings between the three protagonists as they try and brainstorm an idea for a new, independent movie about a serial killer. Their unique selling point being that it’s based on a batch of recent killings in their own town which haven’t been solved yet, with the killer still at large and possibly ready to commit more crimes.  

Now it’s basically a slasher/serial killer comedy but with the emphasis mostly being on the comic elements of the story and, I’ll be honest, it’s going to be hard to write about this without giving away everything about the central twist but I’ll tip toe around it and just reveal that, from the very early stages of the movie, the film reveals that the actual real life serial killer is one of the three working on the film. This is something which, to be fair, I guessed just from reading the summary blurb on the FrightFest ticket website but, unlike the writer and director, I won’t reveal to you here just which one is the serial killer, even though they do spell it out right from the get go.

And, honestly, if you’re looking for a gory slasher film with lots of killings, then this isn’t necessarily going to give you what you want. There’s lots of talk about bloody carnage but, very little of that on the actual screen. Instead, the film focuses on the humour to be found as the main characters talk over the tropes of exploitative slasher movies and fundamental horror film elements, bouncing off each other in really witty and funny ways. I was smiling through a heck of a lot of this movie and I think Killer Concept was my second favourite film of the whole festival this year (Gaia being my favourite, reviewed here).  

And it’s well put together visually as well. There’s a slasher movie style stalking theme at the front end of the movie and the camera movements combined with slow zooms pulling the viewer in are really quite elabourate while also being quite efficient and cool. Without saying too much about that first scene, some of this spills into the rest of the movie... although I think the way the first scene is shot is supposed to have a slightly different look to the rest of the movie (you’ll find out why fairly early on into the first few minutes). There are some excellent montages in one scene of the face and upper body of the serial killer in close up, where the person in question is just staring vacantly into the camera where three very similar shots of that person wearing different clothes and with a different background are cut together, which really helps jettison the comedy mood just when the director needs it to.

There’s a point where the movie become just a little bit more serious with the stakes a little higher than they were before and the nice thing about this is, once it kind of embraces that tonal shift, over the last ten minutes or so, it becomes a different kind of extension of the narrative, just in a slightly more off kilter style and, the abruptness of the ending of the movie may seem at first a little rushed. However, thinking about it, it’s a nice way to end the film and the way in which it suddenly turns into a, just slightly more sombre affair, is something the film-makers seem get away with, I think.

There are some really great comedy moments too, such as the realisation from one of the three that the killer’s victims all have names that could be flowers, like Heather... and this is something the killer obviously didn’t realise also, being as it’s just a bizarre coincidence. And there’s a lovely follow up when the killer is picking victims via a dating app and when a girl turns out to have the name Daisy, it then becomes like a green flag as the next choice.

The one thing that puzzled me a little is the killers constant rewatching and attentive listening to the songs of the 1957 TV movie The Pied Piper of Hamelin. I really didn’t get the reason as to why this movie was somehow informing or inspiring the killer, to be honest. The cynical part of me is saying the film’s copyright has lapsed or something similar and it was possibly the cheapest thing they could get. I’d like to think that there’s more to it than that though... I just couldn’t figure out what.

However, be that as it may, I have to say I had a really good time with Killer Concept and I’d recommend this to most fans of horror or slasher movies (the latter of which are really just thrillers in my book but, what the heck, I know some people think those are horror films so, yeah). I’d definitely revisit this one again so I hope it comes out on Blu Ray at some point because it would make a really nice thing to programme in an all nighter of similarly themed movies. A nicely put together film with some very funny moments. This one is a big thumbs up* from me.

*if I had excessively large thumbs.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Bloodthirsty




Lycan Virgin

Bloodthirsty
Canada 2020
Brainstorm Media
Directed by Amelia Moses


Warning: This one has some mild spoilers.

Bloodthirsty is a newish horror film directed by Amelia Moses which is co-written by Wendy Hill-Tout and pop songwriter/artist Lowell. It’s said the film draws on some of the experiences that Lowell was going through when it came time for her to record her second album. Well okay... so the lead protagonist in this movie is an orphan called Grey, played by Lauren Beatty. Grey is a pop artist and she is under a lot of pressure to put out her second album. But then the legendary record producer Vaughn (played by Greg Bryk) offers to work with her and produce her second album. So Grey and her girlfriend Charlie (played by Katharine King So) go up to stay with him and his housekeeper (played by Judith Buchan) in his large, remote, secluded house in the snowy woods somewhere, so she can get that all important second album under her belt.

However, Vaughn has a shady past and has been acquitted for a murder many years before which he may or have not committed (yeah, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Phil Spector may have been a slight inspiration for this character but, given the experiences of one of the writers, maybe not, who knows... scary if not, though). Also added into this mix is the fact that Grey’s psychiatrist, played by one of the great genre icons, Michael Ironside, in a couple of scenes which almost bookend the movie, has got Grey on pills to help prevent her hallucinations and constant nightmares that she turns into some kind of predatory animal in the night, hunting and eating other animals... you know, like tasty humans maybe.

Faster than you can say lycanthropy leviosa, record producer Vaughn is taking her out of her comfort zone, pushing her in strange ways to get her to loosen up and doing that whole creative thing of being... maybe a little unnecessarily challenging. However, by the time he has this ‘constant vegan’ Grey eating meat and abandoning her pills, you will probably be figuring out one or two more things about Vaughn and the true purpose of his wanting to work with Grey, which may be a clue into his past too.

Okay, so I’m not going to delve too much into the story. It’s a nicely made film and there’s some nice, crisp cinematography. The director sometimes chooses unusual and interesting solutions to the way the scenes are put together. In one sequence, for example, when Grey is having a conversation with her girlfriend, Charlie is in centre of the frame and Grey is reflected small in the mirror behind Charlie in the right of the shot. However, when the reverse of the shot is switched to, we have just a big mirror reflecting Grey in the right hand third of the shot and the rest of the shot is just static background of the room they are in... perhaps to push the visual metaphor that Grey is getting further and further alienated from Charlie as the story plays out.

It’s an entertaining, curiously claustrophobic piece and the actors are all pretty good, with Greg Bryk especially coming off as some kind of creepy version of Matthew McConaughey a lot of the time. That being said, I did have a couple of issues with the film and they both involve the story. And by that I mean... there are absolutely no surprises in this film. You can kind of see everything coming way before the delivery gets there. So, for example, there’s a big reveal about three quarters of the way through about the ancestry of one of the characters which you might even twig within the first 20 minutes of the film... which is a shame but the writing is not subtle in the things about the legacy of two of the characters so, you can’t help but feel there is a strong connection between them. Secondly, when one of the four characters I’ve mentioned gets killed in the final part of the movie, although the director tries very hard to divert the audience's attention as to who killed that character.... well, lets just say she fools nobody on that score.

But, despite all that, I thought the film holds up as a nice diversion. Bloodthirsty is not the most visceral of horror films but it does have a certain haunting quality to it. Many horror fans will like some of the references to other similarly themed films including at least two visual references to An American Werewolf In London... a film I thought was okay as a teen but could never understand the huge devotion it gets from werewolf fans the world over. I haven’t seen that one since the mid-1980s though so, yeah, maybe I should give that one another go sometime. I’m not sure if Bloodthirsty will be remembered in years to come but it’s a nice one for an evening’s viewing if you’re a fan of the sub-genre from which it is so obviously birthed. Worth a look. 

Tuesday, 31 August 2021

Gaia






Fun Gaia
To Be With


Gaia
South Africa 2021
Directed by Jaco Bouwer


Warning: Some largish set up spoilers
found growing from within this review.


Another movie that debuted in the UK at this year’s FrightFest is Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia... and it’s a really great little folk horror film, it has to be said. There was another film out a couple of months ago called In The Earth (which I reviewed here) and this film, which is another kind of folk horror fable (something which seems to be having a bit of a resurgence over the last couple of years), is cut from similar cloth and would make a very good old school Scala Cinema double bill with this movie, I reckon.

Gaia starts off very strongly with two rangers in a jungle-like forest in South Africa - Gabi (played by Monique Rockman) and Winston (played by Anthony Oseyemi) - rowing their small boat down a stream. The film has beautiful cinematography and some of the opening shots as they thread their way down the stream through undergrowth on either side has visual echoes of the opening of The Shining to it, while a modern droning kind of soundtrack plays out (the score by Pierre-Henri Wicomb is incredible and I wish it were available on CD).

When Gabi’s camera drone which is flying ahead of them is taken out by one of two men in the wilderness, who at first are presented to the audience as possibly some kind of indigenous natives, she foolishly splits up from Winston and goes off into the jungle to find it. She falls foul of a trap laid by the two men and gets a big pointy stick through her foot for her trouble. She takes shelter in a cabin which turns out to be the home of the two... Barend (played by Carel Nel) and his son Stefan (played by Alex van Dyk). They dress her wound but she keeps having dreams that she’s closer to the nature of the forest than she thinks and, indeed, it’s not long before flowers and fungi start growing out of her which she keeps removing from her legs.

Meanwhile, as Winston hides from one of several blind, plant people hybrids that seem to have grown in the forest, a spreading tendril of fungus stretches across the bark of a tree and pounces on him... growing him into the tree and effectively turning him into one of the plant men. As Gabi slowly pieces together what is happening in the forest, it becomes clear that a plant like Earth goddess is living under the earth and that it’s almost time for the reckoning of mankind... the polluters of the world.

So I’m not going to say much more about the story because I really don’t want to ruin it for you... suffice to say that Gaia is a really great looking film but it’s not just a triumph of style over substance. It has things to say and it does so with a certain amount of eerie beauty and suspense. At the start of the picture, the sense of uneasiness as Gabi is trying to find her video drone in the forest is almost completely generated by the foreboding and sinister score. By the mid-way mark, however, there is a clear and present danger as tensions and stakes get ratcheted up a notch.

The actors in this are all phenomenal, it has to be said, focusing most of the time on just Gabi, Barend, Stefan and a bunch of fungus faced plant people who are obviously the result of human tissue infected with various off-shoots of nature in this area of the forest. A special shout out has to go to Monique Rockman, who is absolutely amazing in this one... this lady needs to be in more things, for sure.

The special effects are simple but very effective, often creating an almost a psychedelic atmosphere to some of the movie, including in a few unfolding dream sequences which add an even more surrealistic edge to the proceedings. The whole idea that the very Earth itself could be your enemy seems like an idea which would be easy to push in current Covid times so, I could see this film being very popular if it ever gets a wider release in the UK (which, given its release pattern in other countries, I’m sadly not holding my breath for... damn, I would have liked to get a nice Blu Ray of this one).

The one curious stylistic trait which the director seems to be leaning on a few times is to start off shots with the picture framed upside down for a few seconds and then turning the camera back to a normal view. Now, I have to say, I’ve got no idea why he does this so often but he is consistent in using this style in many sequences and, indeed, the opening few shots of the movie also seem to do this. It’s probably alluding to something way more clever than I was able to pick up but at least it’s a consistent visual theme throughout so, no complaints from me.

The ending to the film is very cool too... it’s not totally unexpected but the little epilogue scene gives us an echo of something one of the characters says earlier in the film and it makes you think that the ‘Earth mother’ alluded to in the film’s title is only just getting started, as far as the blight of humanity is concerned. Gaia is one of those movies where science and ritual meet and cross pollinate to make a very trippy kind of horror movie which I absolutely adored... although I’m sure some people will possibly not see this one as a horror film at all, although it certainly uses more than just the tropes and language of the genre to push the story completely into that realm, as far as I’m concerned. I would absolutely love to see this one again but it would need to be released in a physical format for me to get around to it. It’s certainly a lovely looking movie though and I would recommend it to fantasy and horror fans alike.

Monday, 30 August 2021

Sound Of Violence




Remixing Death

Sound Of Violence
Finland/USA 2021
Directed by Alex Noyer


Warning: This one has a fair amount of spoilers.

Screening at FrightFest yesterday, Sound Of Violence is a quite brilliant feature debut from writer/director Alex Noyer. In fact, I’d almost say it’s one of those near perfect movies but I had a couple of little issues with it, which I’ll get to in just a little while.

As the story starts we hear main character Alexis, played by Jasmin Savoy Brown, explaining to the audience about her current, sometimes synaesthetic response to music/sound (where she sees colours thrown up by the sound etc) and she starts off telling us an incident in her childhood, when she was a little girl back in 2002. She was deaf, lost her hearing at an early age and she can just about hear the odd vibration from sound if it’s turned up. We are then taken into a very awkward, family reunion scene where her traumatised combat veteran father has returned home. Later that night, she feels some percussive vibrations coming up through the floor of her upstairs room and goes downstairs to investigate. He father has killed her mother and brother and is currently cutting up her mother with a meat cleaver, making these sounds. The young girl starts seeing the colours thrown up from the sound vibrations for the first time and, when she takes a meat tenderiser to her father’s head, two things happen... her world explodes into a synaesthetic response to that sound and she suddenly has her hearing back.

Jump to the present day and Alexix is a music student/stand-in lecturer experimenting with sound to try and capture the synaesthetic hits, focusing on pain as something which can be recorded and manipulated into something more artistic. However, she’s also sometimes losing her hearing again briefly and in a desperate effort to discover the cause and cure of her condition, she descends into a series of ‘experiments’ where she tortures and kills people in various ways, recording them to try and capture the synaesthetic responses she gets from these acts of violence.

That’s probably all I should reveal about the story because, a) I don’t want to spoil it too much and b) I probably wouldn’t do justice to the abstract, obsessional motivations of the main character (let alone completely understand them myself, which I think is probably okay, actually).

First of all, the acting in this is great. Brown plays the central protagonist/antagonist in a fairly naturalistic way and she has good chemistry with her best friend and room mate (and potential lover) Marie, played by Lili Simmons (who was in the first season of the TV version of The Purge, reviewed here). We know Alexis has a gift for music due to her early childhood trauma and there’s a wonderful scene where she goes into a shop to try out a theremin and can play it straight away (which means, I believe, that the character has perfect pitch... those things aren’t all that easy to play). The other characters are a little sketchier in the way they’re drawn but that’s because you are given all you need to know to make the story work and the actors do their jobs well. Tessa Munro does some very good work as the police inspector who is constantly one step behind Alexis’ murders... as does James Jagger, as Marie’s current boyfriend.

There are also some nice set pieces in the film. A scene where she drugs and then ties up a tramp to a special torture chair she’s constructed to maim and kill him while recording the sounds of his death is a novel idea (at least in cinema, I guess... and an early prototype of this notion which made it into cinema might be the orgasm/death machine in Barbarella). And a dream sequence involving a guy being run over, juxtaposed by the explosion of colour from his death, is a pretty effective scene.

Another interesting moment comes where she hooks up a vocalist with some electrodes plugged into her theremin and overloads him with the sounds until his head explodes. So, yeah, death by theremin is a first in a movie for me, at any rate and, since it’s my favourite musical instrument, I was happy to see this in here.

My favourite scene is where Alexis and Marie go to record the sounds of a dominatrix whipping and flogging her sub with a number of different impact play instruments. Alexis is trying to push the domme to go further but she won’t go past the limits of her sub. I liked this sequence, not because it’s the first real clue we get to the grown up version of Alexis’ obsession to go beyond past the limits of safety but because the practice of BDSM by two professional players - a top and a bottom - is shown to be a safe, sane environment based on sexual preferences and professionalism, not something which is even hinted at as being somehow unhealthy or approaching the bizarre stigma that people who don’t practice that kind of lifestyle seem to want to push onto people they don’t understand. So big applause to the director for pushing that agenda here. He has my undying respect.

However, I did have two slight problems with the movie which I’ll just note here. One is that, Alexis just keeps leaving both the dead bodies and her easily trackable machinery around after the murders. She barely even goes through the motions of trying to hide her gruesome crimes/experiments and, while I appreciate the character is supposed to be somewhat deranged and a little insular, this just seemed beyond stupid to me.

The other thing I had troubles with was the final murder set piece. I don’t want to say what that is but much importance is made of this sequence due to its longevity and focus so you’ll know it when you see it. However, it just felt like a really tame moment in comparison to some of the other murders we’d seen. I’m sure it sounded really grotesque and bleak on paper but, I just don’t think the final practical effect was managed in a way which highlighted the intent... it just felt a bit lightweight of a thing to be happening in what is the final scene of the movie. I didn’t feel like it was something which made good on the promise of the set up.

That being said though, these are perhaps minor points and I really liked Sound Of Violence. It’s a little different to some of the things I’ve seen done (at least in a motion picture format), it’s well acted, well shot and has an appropriately meticulous sound design which helps provide the right tone on some of the scenes. I had a lot of fun with this one and I’ll be first in line for the Blu Ray if we are lucky enough to get the film released in this format. This is definitely one to take a look at.